Mark Sanford was shocked to learn that his former colleague Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), who last weekend became the sole Republican to call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment, had been formally censured by the House Freedom Caucus.
The Freedom Caucus unanimously voted to condemn Amash, a founding member, on Monday evening for speaking out against Trump, escalating the treatment that Trump critics — like former Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake and even Sanford — have received in the past.
“We’re living in weird political times,” the former conservative lawmaker from South Carolina said in a recent interview. Sanford was part of the exclusive group of the House’s most conservative lawmakers until Trump backed his primary challenger last year over his critical comments of Trump.
To outside observers like Sanford, it was a telling moment. The Freedom Caucus was once a group designed to fight against a certain Republican Party groupthink, to promote small-government and constitutionally conservative ideals, but it is increasingly indistinguishable from Trump.
It’s been a slow unraveling, said Corie Whalen, Amash’s former congressional staffer.
“Trump was unexpectedly elected, so they wanted to work with him when they could, but it went from working with him to being sycophants,” Whalen said. “And for what? I’m not sure they can tell us.”
In private, Amash says Republicans in Congress have been sympathetic to his views, CNN reported Wednesday. But in public, they’ve shown a united front.
“The notion of freedom is freedom. The notion of freedom is the right to express one’s view how one sees it,” Sanford told me.
Amash isn’t backing down
Over the weekend, Amash tweeted that Trump’s conduct is impeachable, that Attorney General William Barr knowingly misled the public about the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, and that his Republican colleagues in Congress are willfully ignoring it all. He came to that conclusion after reading the entirety of the redacted special counsel report.
“My job is to defend the Constitution. I’m laying out the information I want to lay out, and it’s not about getting on TV or anything like that,” he told CNN on Wednesday afternoon. He has not committed to signing on to an impeachment resolution yet but has said he believes the process should start.
The position has isolated him in Congress.
“Justin is one person with one opinion that is out of step with this conference and out of step with America,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday.
Amash has been attacked by Trump, who called him a “loser.” He already has a Trump-loving primary challenger in his district, which McCarthy forebodingly alluded to on Tuesday. Amash insists the challenge isn’t serious.
The Congress member comfortably and regularly speaks up against his party, and has been consistent in how he has dealt with the Russia investigation. He was one of the first Republicans to acknowledge the possibility of impeachment in May 2017, after then-FBI Director James Comey released a memo indicating that Trump urged the FBI to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He has remained outspoken.
The Freedom Caucus is proving Amash’s point
As much as Amash’s statements have been an indictment of the president, they’ve also thrust the Republican Party’s inaction into the spotlight.
“We’ve witnessed members of Congress from both parties shift their views 180 degrees — on the importance of character, on the principles of obstruction of justice — depending on whether they’re discussing Bill Clinton or Donald Trump,” Amash tweeted.
The Freedom Caucus is perhaps best at proving this point. Led by Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH), who have a direct line to the president, the Freedom Caucus has always liked to tout itself as a big-tent group with raucous policy debate. Amash, a libertarian — who notably doesn’t attend meetings anymore — played a big role in that.
But now the group has become some of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders in Congress.
It’s helped raise the caucus’s influence. When Republicans controlled the House, the Freedom Caucus, having cultivated Trump’s ear, forced congressional Republican leaders to listen to its demands. They used that power to move the debate on issues like health care and immigration further and further right, often tanking negotiations altogether. But the group has had to accept that Trump wasn’t always aligned with their mission: He’s supported deficit-busting budgets and abandoned cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare.
“It’s all got a little bit fuzzy in the Trump era,” Sanford said of the Freedom Caucus’s mission, pointing out “more than a little irony” in Mick Mulvaney — now acting White House chief of staff and another Freedom Caucus founding member, who’s known for being one of Congress’s most notorious deficit hawks — supporting an administration that’s ballooned the debt.
Their biggest focus has been on securing political wins for Trump, using the House inquiry into Russia’s election meddling to sow distrust in the FBI, and defending the president through every twist and turn of Mueller’s investigation.
Meadows has said the group was based on two rules: Members had to be willing to vote with Republican leadership, and against it.
Now they’re on the way to establishing a third: Members have to stand by Trump.
“It just seems like these guys want to follow the leader,” Whalen said. “It’s actually sad.”